Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My Nightmare

I'm sure this doesn't fall under the "quality blog entry" concept that I mentioned two entries ago, but I'm also not one to shy away from pointing out the good and the bad in customer service either.

Here's the Executive Summary for you, which I am sure will hook you into reading the rest: I lost a hard drive that had no backup; recovered it completely using freeware; fried my motherboard in the process of permanently installing the previously lost hard drive; replaced the motherboard and the CPU (just in case); and now have a working computer again 4 weeks later.

How all of this happened is something I can't explain. (Well, maybe I can. More on that later.)

Three years ago, I bought an external, 500G USB 2.0 Fantom drive from MicroNet. The reviews on NewEgg were positive overall; the price (at that time) was very good; and I was running out of disk space on my internal drive so I bought it. About a month before the really bad stuff occurred, the drive started exhibiting problems, though I was naive and simply thought it had spun down and simply needed to startup again. "Smart drive, saving itself like this. That'll increase the time before it fails." Yes, I really did think that.

August 24, 2010 - Black Tuesday - came and Microsoft released their bevy of hotfixes for the month. When I rebooted after applying the fixes, the computer didn't restart. It had "hard hung," so I needed to power down the computer completely. It rebooted okay, but then the drive wasn't being recognized by Windows.

Panic! I had no backup! None of my financial data was on the drive, but something far more valuable was: songs that my oldest daughter sang every Christmas season that I recorded, going back to when she was 3 years old.

I immediately went to the two expert sources that I know: TeamWarfare League and Cubase.net . The former is a website of gamers with over 600,000 registered members, and there is no group of people that is more in touch with technology and its snafus than a bunch of hardcore gamers. The latter is a website of professional (and semi-professional) music recording people who rely on computers to provide for them the ability to create the wonderful works of music that they do. Like gamers, they know technology very well because their very livelihood depends on it.

Various suggestions were made including software to try as well as one, little known trick, which I have used as far back as 1994: put the hard drive in the freezer for 1h and try again.

(For those of you who think that's absurb, the logic is this: stuck mechanical parts in the drive will contract in the freezer, giving you typically 20m or so of good operation before the heat generated by the use causes them to get stuck again. The cold temperatures themselves do not jeopardize the magnetic properties of the data. My standard disclaimer applies here, however: try this at your own risk and don't come after me with a lawyer if it doesn't work.)

After spending a few days researching disk structures and realizing that I had not kept up with technology since I wrote a disaster recovery solution for OS/2 in the mid-90's (ironically, my current employer acquired the company after I left), I finally reached out to Gibson Research, makers of the very highly recommended SpinRite data recovery software. I asked them for their honest opinion if they thought there was a chance that the software would help; told them I would buy if they honestly thought it would.

To their credit, they told me no. Anyone who is given a chance to make money would take the chance, I would have thought, so they get major kudos for their honesty. Unfortunately, they were wrong. But I digress.

The freezer trick didn't work. Using the built-in Windows low-level diskpart utility didn't work. Nothing seemed to work. Worse, MicroNet told me that since the drive was no longer under warranty that they would charge me to fix it. No warranty? No problem. I can break the seal on the case without worrying about the consequences since I know inside is a "regular" (read: internal) hard drive.

Sure enough, inside was a Western Digital EIDE drive that I was able to connect to my motherboard directly. Then I found, downloaded, and installed MiniTool Power Data Recovery, a freeware application that received good reviews. Using the Lost Partition Recovery function, I not only found all of my files but was able to save them to my main hard drive.

Disaster avoided, or so I thought.

That evening, I repartitioned the previously misbehaving drive; performed a full NTFS format on it; and ran some non-scientific tests to confirm that the drive itself was okay. I had erroneously suspected that the Windows hotfix installation "failure on reboot" caused my partition table to get wiped out, so I wanted to make the drive external again. I copied the files back to the drive (keeping the backup this time [wink]) and reinstalled it in its enclosure.

No dice. The circuitry in the enclosure seems to have been the culprit after all.

I won't deny that I'm disappointed that the failure occurred after only 3 years, especially since circuit boards have no moving parts. I wrote MicroNet and told them this, but (not surprisingly) I haven't heard back from them. After taking the hard drive out again, I threw away the enclosure and do not plan to buy from them again. I'm not about to throw away a perfectly good 500G Western Digital drive, however, so I installed the drive permanently in my computer case. While attempting to reinstall the drive after setting the jumper on the DVD drive so that it will work harmoniously with my "new" hard drive my computer died completely.

No video signal. No POST. No sound. Nothing.

Now I'm really panicking because although I know I can get my computer to work again and all of the files will be there, I do not want to be wrestling with the hardware manufacturers to get them to honor the warranties, etc. Now I go to the ultimate expert: my younger brother, Bill.

He walked me through some diagnostics and, at the end, we determined that it was either the video card; the motherboard; or the CPU. Since he lives 1,000 miles away, we couldn't narrow the focus any further, and he recommended I go to a computer repair shop and ask them to provide a final analysis.

The disadvantage of moving from NYC to the middle of the countryside is that there aren't a bevy of stores (relative to what you'd find 5 minutes from the Queens border on Long Island like we had before) to choose from when you need something. The only repair shop was Aurora Computer Urgent Care (who, lucky for them, do not have a website), so I called them on the phone and explained the situation and what I needed. "No problem," they said. "Bring it in."

Three days later, I call them to find out the status. This already left me feeling frustrated because, in my opinion, a repair shop should call the customer when the work is finished and not the other way around. They told me that they eliminated the graphics card as the source of the problem but they can't do any more because they do not build AMD-based computers and so they do not have a working motherboard and CPU to swap with mine.

Excuse me? Why wasn't I told this before? I grudgingly picked up my computer and paid $55 (plus tax) for something I could have done myself (read: buy a new graphics card; test it out; return it to the store; and maybe pay a restocking fee that is less than $55) in much less time. While I was there, I mentioned my frustration to the manager - this is a 5 person shop, so "manager" is a bit of a misnomer - only to get a "we don't build AMD computers because we feel they're unreliable" response. He missed my point entirely, but I knew I would end up punching him in the face if I continued the debate so I simply drove home.

Now comes the hard part: I know that motherboard manufacturers get returned merchandise all of the time since these are probably the most common parts to fail in a computer. AMD, my CPU manufacturer, was going to be another matter entirely. Since they can almost always point to the motherboard and say it's their problem, they aren't going to be so willing to replace the CPU.

The only good thing that Aurora did was provide a written statement recommending that I change the CPU first, something I didn't need to be told but may have needed in case AMD pushed back. I called up AMD and, 10 minutes later, I had an RMA number with nary a hint of resistance. Furthermore, I was told it would take approximately 5 days total: they will provide 2-day shipping to and from their facility free of charge and would ship out a new CPU as soon as they receive mine.

Wow. AMD got major kudos for excellent customer service at the end of that call.

"If AMD was that easy, Gigabyte [my motherboard manufacturer] should be a cinch," I thought.

To Gigabyte's credit, their Customer Service department was very good though a tad difficult to understand due to the heavy accent of the Asian gentleman helping me out. He asked me to do a few other tests that I've never tried before to confirm that the motherboard, indeed, was dead. So how long would it take to get this replaced? 2-3 business weeks depending on how fast I wanted to ship it there. (1 week to examine the motherboard to determine if they should repair or replace it plus standard 5 day shipping back.)

2-3 weeks? Are you kidding me? I had been down 10 days already and could not afford 2-3 weeks more. And with motherboards costing under $100 it's actually more cost effective to buy a new one since my CPU will be covered under its warranty. This policy is stupid, in my opinion. I realize that margins are very thin in the motherboard market, but while I can run a computer without my sound card (and can afford to wait 2-3 weeks) I cannot without a working motherboard. What they are doing is akin to highway robbery in my opinion.

Here's the irony of this situation: I dropped the CPU off to be sent back to AMD at the FedEx shop on the Saturday before Labor Day just as the place closed (read: it wasn't actually sent until Tuesday), and the CSR I spoke with was incorrect about the CPU coming back as 2-day shipping. Instead, it took a full 5 days for it to arrive. If I had RMA'd the motherboard, it would have arrived at around the same time.

What motherboard did I buy? Believe it or not, I bought another Gigabyte. My logic is that a) it ran spectacularly well until this incident and b) they have one of the best, if not the best, price points on the market given the quality of their product. Given that electronics are especially susceptible to static electricity, it's quite possible (and even likely) that my muckity-mucking around in the case to permanently install the Western Digital hard drive is the reason why my computer stopped working, so there's no reason to blame the hardware for something that is probably my fault.

I do plan on RMA'ing the motherboard after all, and selling it on CraigsList, eBay, or simply keeping it as a spare. I'm not sure which, but if I do sell it and get $40 for it then the cost of the new motherboard goes from $70 (after rebates) to $30. Not a bad deal considering what happened and that I now have USB 3.0 support, which I didn't have before this happened.

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